Reflection on the 2019 GPSA Global Partners Forum by Jeff Thindwa

A critical and sobering time for social accountability

Have you ever had the chance to take the pulse of a diverse and growing area of practice? The Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) has had that privilege since 2012.


In the past seven years, more than 300 organizations – from civil society, academia, international development and private sector and 53 governments – have joined in efforts to advance the idea of social accountability from their realities.


The GPSA, with a tripartite steering committee of civil society organizations (CSOs), governments and donors, has a mandate to start small and grow organically learning from experience. From its inception, the GPSA has received over 2000 social accountability proposals for funding from around the world. And it has supported more than 200 different civic groups and organizations experimenting with social accountability in 30 countries.


As a program, we celebrate that diversity every year at the Global Partners Forum, which took place from November 19 to 21, 2019. Open Society Foundations, Public Service Accountability Monitor, and the World Bank’s Human Rights Development Trust Fund joined as co-hosts. The focus was on social accountability’s contribution to inclusion.


The Forum was organized in three parts: foundations, opportunities and challenges, and frontiers. You can review its agenda and set of sessions here. The main goal was to enable civil society actors, as practitioners of social accountability, to learn from peers and look ahead to new frontiers (see Brief).


In over 20 plenaries and workshops, generated bottom-up from over 80 proposals through an open call, they reflected the rich tapestry that weaves social accountability around the world, where groups are working on cross-cutting themes such as disability, human rights, LGBTI and gender.


The sessions suggested that practitioners may be doing really cutting-edge work that’s not accounted for in much of the theoretical debates on social accountability. And by talking about the challenge of inclusion and its relationship to social accountability, the Forum hopefully provoked new thinking about how we position social accountability in its new frontiers to do more, and better on that theme.


The Forum’s sessions also showed how social accountability took many forms across many different issues and sectors. And let’s remember social accountability’s well-rehearsed mantra, “context matters”! Its many forms are surely a reflection of this truism. It means we must move from debates that try to present any one of social accountability’s forms – whether social protests or collaborative governance, as the "real story” of citizen action.


Also pertinent is Brian Levy’s reminder, at the Forum, that we can no longer reduce social accountability practice (within and beyond the GPSA) to dichotomies, some of the common ones being: short versus long route, first generation versus second generation, strategic versus tactical, protests versus collaborative solutions, instrumental versus normative, led by nonprofit or civic groups versus social movements.


What’s also important, as I said in my GPSA update, is we must embrace experimentation, supported by honest and inclusive learning – which we have placed at the center of what we do in the GPSA; indeed a part of our DNA.


The outlook is challenging and sobering, but we take that as a call for us to continue facilitating spaces for collective learning and action, - as recommended at one session.


Social accountability today is at a critical crossroads

Social accountability has come a long way in the last 15 years. Priorities after the Arab Spring that inspired the launch of the GPSA, have evolved since then, and social accountability is moving at a very fast speed. The first GPSA Forums surfaced the idea of politically savvy, long-term approaches to social accountability.


These approaches have become a myriad of strategic and operational realities across diverse contexts. To remain relevant, the global conversation needs to shift again.


What do social accountability practitioners want to talk about?

Practitioners are navigating chopped seas and grappling with tensions continuously. Their stories are about shaping social accountability taking into account diverse realities and constraints. Collaborative problem-solving, for instance, was not part of initial definitions of social accountability. But it is part of many civil society groups’ effort to address problems people care about.


This approach calls for new ways of doing social accountability - see Adaptive Learning, as many of the Forum’s sessions explored. Communities often choose collaboration, and it can be effective (see here, here, here).


But the point of departure isn’t to elevate collaborative forms over other forms such as protests. Rather, it is to acknowledge that practitioners have different realities, from which they engage particular forms. 


But perhaps the important question, as regards protests around the world, is how we can help address the disconnect between people and governments, and the various demands, of which inequality and uneven playing fields seem to be at the core.  


As a grant-making facility, the GPSA is revising its theory of action. It is based on the notion that when civil society and citizens engage accountable public sector actors in processes that are problem-oriented and anchored in learning - collaborative social accountability – they can deliver solutions to governance and development problems: improved maternal and child health in Mozambique and Indonesia, better school governance in Malawi, Moldova and Mongolia, more gender-inclusive local government in Bangladesh and access to water access in Tajikistan – all through GPSA grants


It is an inductive and evolving approach – built from the learning harnessed by the civil society coalitions that have been supported by the GPSA over the years, and from an understanding of where the GPSA, as a tripartite platform anchored in the World Bank, can add value.


This approach speaks to the needs of our time. Tom Aston linked it to finding ways to act in a moment in which civic space is closing and changing: “Humility is important, as is taking a back seat when logos diminish legitimacy. But I think this shift also helps explain why many GPSA grantees are increasingly working behind the scenes and critiquing government privately rather than publicly. It’s not just isomorphic mimicry”.


This turn towards collaboration stems from learning from our project partners. It is also informed by our assumptions about the drivers of growing demand for leveraging social accountability to improve results in the public sector. This is an exciting opportunity.


In a piece published after the Forum, Michael Edwards called for greater engagement in bridge-building in these times of significant polarization, saying: “It’s not that…protests are bad (quite the contrary); the problem comes when they dominate the civil society ‘ecosystem’ to the exclusion of cross-cutting organizations, since one can’t substitute for the other.”


Grappling with the evolution of social accountability work is sobering

The GPSA Forum is a powerful reminder that different organizations, including the GPSA, can add different value to social accountability.


It is the right time to write the next chapter of social accountability, one that takes an inclusive view of citizen action and sees potential gains from the diversity of approaches, that’s driven by local actors and, in the context of lessons learned in the GPSA, that also creates bridges across civil society and public sector systems, where social accountability can find paths to addressing inequalities at scale.


We in the GPSA, and our partners world-wide, are learning from the past and the present to chart the future and invite others to do the same.


Jeff Thindwa is GPSA Program Manager.




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